By Kate Walford, Intern 2015
Size discrimination doesn’t just focus on looks. America’s so-called “obesity epidemic” has led the medical establishment to push a policy based on healthism, focused on weight as an indicator of health. The idea that one can tell a person’s health based on their size is complete bullshit—and Harriet Brown makes this very clear in her new book, Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It.
Body of Truth gave me the chills, and a new outlook on the way health and weight are related:
Or at least, we don’t understand that relationship.
My previous opinions about the fat acceptance movement and body positivity were centered on someone else’s health being none of my business—who cares if an overweight person is unhealthy? It doesn’t make them a bad person, and I shouldn’t care either way. But Body of Truth blew up all of these assumptions.
Our current climate around weight is one of fear. Terms like the “obesity epidemic” interpret an individual’s weight as a societal problem. Our First Lady has dedicated her years in the White House to ending childhood obesity, without ever mentioning that BMI ranges were changed so that more Americans are categorized as “overweight” and “obese” than ever before—without their actually gaining a pound.
The mythos of American culture, based on independence and hard work, further fuels the idea that losing weight is a personal responsibility—especially for women. Michelle Obama, on the “Let’s Move!” website, asks of current obesity statistics, “How did we get here?” I ask: How did we get to a place where weight is something to be afraid of?
Because the evidence simply does not justify this fear. As Brown writes, there is only a vague correlation between BMI and health issues, but no proven causation. In fact, Brown cites numerous studies that question whether weight causes heart disease or diabetes—and points out that weight alone is not actually proven to cause any illness. Evidence even suggests that Americans in the “overweight” category are actually at the least risk of death out of all weight categories. And where were the magazine articles discussing this revelation, I ask?
Nowhere. Medicine actually knows very little about weight and health, but pressures us all to be trim in order to live a healthy life.
Brown also finds an enormous hole in many studies on obesity: They don’t consider fitness or socioeconomic status, both important indicators of health that are in no way reflected in a person’s weight or BMI. The health/weight conflation is nothing short of bias within the medical field, kept burning by our culture’s obsession with thinness.
Body of Truth weaves together personal narrative and anecdotes discussing women’s feelings about their bodies and food, and backs them up with scientific and historical research. I spoke with Harriet Brown about why this obsession with thinness and its alleged connection to health is so strong in our society, and how we can change our culture’s mindset to one in which weight is not a societal indicator of success, beauty, and health.
Challenges in Changing the Conversation
A majority of people still buy into the idea that thin is healthy and fat is not, and changing people’s minds on this issue can at times seem impossible. Brown says this is a hard idea to shake because we get this message from so many places on a daily basis. It’s not just the media—it’s the medical industry, our friends, peers, and family. “It’s relentless. We’re saturated, we swim in it. It’s like fish swimming in water. It’s very hard to step outside of that perspective,” says Brown.
Additionally, many people have found a perceived moral victory in losing weight—since our culture’s “Before and After” attitude on weight loss encourages them to do so—and letting go of that can be painful. Brown says that explaining that weight and health aren’t connected often creates the response of, “Wait, you’re telling me I’ve devoted all this time and energy in my life to a goal that maybe isn’t that important?”
And some people, as hard as it is to accept, just don’t want to change. “I have learned to just say to those people, ‘You are welcome to your opinions. You are welcome to your beliefs, even though the evidence doesn’t support those beliefs for most people. Everyone is individual and unique.'”
When Activism Is Personal
So many people in the field of body image and eating disorder activism have been personally affected by this issue. It can be tough to immerse yourself in this triggering, heart-wrenching field. Brown, like so many people, has personal ties to these issues, from body image and food issues to eating disorders: Her daughter was diagnosed with anorexia in 2005.
“It’s incredibly difficult to balance activism with personal history,” says Brown, who explained that she did struggle with triggers and personal low points while writing this book. “I think sometimes it’s healthier to walk away from it, for a while at least.” It’s also healthy to realize that having survived an eating disorder and now being an activist are not your only identities. Brown suggests taking the time to nurture and pay attention to other identities within yourself when doing this work.
And what about the personal steps so many people are taking to heal themselves and change their own perspectives on weight and bodies? Can this create widespread change? Personally, I have days where it seems as though no one understands the transition my perspective on my own body and eating is going through, and I wonder whether my own personal changes will ever have an impact on anyone else.
While Brown acknowledges the isolation of body image struggles, she doesn’t discount their importance. “I think they’re all we’ve got right now,” she says of individual perspective shifts. “Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of movement in other areas. Because this issue is so deeply ingrained in our sense of ourselves, as well as in the greater culture, it’s probably those personal things that will be the most effective agents of change right now, and can lead to change on a more social scale later on.”
So where are we in this process—and how far do we have to go? “If it’s a 10-step process, we’re between steps one and two,” says Brown. “The first step—representation—is a really big one, and I think we’ve taken that as a culture. In some places, like social media and in mainstream media occasionally, you now see represented other body ideals. And that’s big, considering where we’ve come from. But deeply held beliefs about identity take a very, very long time to change.”
Anyone who has been personally affected by body image concerns knows how hard it is to change your own perspective, let alone someone else’s. Brown explains that it could take generations before children in the US are born with a different outlook on weight and health. But that argument is not without hope. Just how cool would it be if your grandchildren were born into a society where they didn’t think even once about their weight and ate freely, without worries? Personally, I love to imagine this wonderful future-world.
Body of Truth is a fantastic read for anyone interested in body image, as well as anyone in the process of changing their own ideas about weight and health. It is fascinating—and often disturbing—to see how fixated we as a society are on our bodies. And yet, the book also offers inspiring insights into ways women have reclaimed a body narrative that fits their own lives.
This book is much more than inspiring; it is urgent. The sooner we can deconstruct these ideas and realize how personal and inconsistent weight and health are, the healthier we can be as a society.